Opinion

How real is the fake news problem?

If 2017 already has a buzz word, it could well be 'fake news', but just how big is the problem? In this guest post David Hickey, director Meltwater ANZ, explores the issue and argues journalistic integrity and research have taken a back seat as news organisations chase eyeballs and create clickbait.

Social media has completely transformed the way we create, distribute and consume news. In the past decade, it has become a driving force in shaping political beliefs and online and offline behaviour. In fact, Telsyte’s recent Australian Digital Consumer Study found that online news is now considered the most influential medium for Australian businesses and consumers, with one in three respondents accessing news through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Amid ongoing reports citing the prevalence of fake news stories circulating social media during the recent US election, we have seen journalistic integrity and research take a back seat in the pursuit of clickbait.

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Social media v news media
Social media has become somewhat of an echo chamber in which the content, pages and even people that we engage with in the online space increasingly serve to confirm our own personal biases. This is no mistake.

The socialisation of news is a hallmark of the digital age. Algorithmic formulas across social platforms now pick and choose what we do and do not see, selectively exposing users to content that aligns with their own opinions, interests and social and political sensibilities.

But perhaps what’s even more interesting is how social media events are increasingly shaping the mainstream news agenda. You need to look no further than Donald Trump’s strategic use of Twitter throughout last year’s US presidential election to divert and shape the news to suit his own agenda.

Take the lawsuit against Trump University that was recently settled in November for example. Even after winning the election, he continues to deflect any negative sentiment by diverting the public’s attention to other activities. Any significant coverage of Trump’s $25 million fraud case settlement was overshadowed by the media frenzy that ensued following a tweet by Trump demanding that the cast of Hamilton apologise to Mike Pence after he was booed at a performance that same night. In fact, analysis from Meltwater shows that on the day the news broke, the incident around Hamilton dominated international news, consuming about 56% share of voice compared to Trump University.

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The reality is that this is the output of one man — imagine how many other people and businesses engage in a similar strategy to Trump, yet we just don’t see it.

As news stories continue to unfold in real-time, media outlets have a duty of care to uphold journalistic integrity at all costs. But a 24/7 news churn cycle and the pursuit for eyeballs has meant sufficient research and fact checking are often bypassed in favour of clickbait articles or at worst, fake news and misinformation.

The rise of fake news
The potential profit to be made from online advertising is what is driving the fake news industry at this very moment, and with 85c of every $1 spent on online advertising going to Facebook and Google, there is money to be made.

A recent news analysis by BuzzFeed News found that in the final three months of the US election campaign, the 20 top fake news stories on Facebook produced more user engagement than the 20 top real news stories from verified news websites.

The difficulty in determining what is real and what is fake has alarming effects due to its influence over consumers who are easily swayed by what they read. President Trump is again a prime example of this. With 46 million followers across his personal Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, his reach and influence extends globally and is often a source of news that’s influential enough to drive and sway hundreds of pieces of media stories (real and fake) through one post.

Just earlier this month Trump used his personal Twitter account to accuse the CIA of leaking an unverified dossier, which allegedly says that the Russian government holds compromising personal information and Trump’s financial entanglements. He accused the CIA of spreading ‘fake news’ about him, using his Twitter account to defend himself and shape the media stories that were published, all the while discrediting certain media outlets as ‘fake news’ if they reported on his actions negatively.

Whether intentional or not, social media technology has moved far beyond a platform that was initially intended to facilitate communication and networking between users, to a filter that has completely disrupted the way that audiences and organisations access, distribute and consume news.

As fake news and misinformation continue to circulate, journalists are faced with the challenging task of remaining competitive in a landscape that has become somewhat indifferent towards the principles upon which their practice is based. Facebook understands the impact of fake news on their site, having just announced its ‘Facebook Journalism Project”, a sign that it’s taking a more active role to filter out fake news.

While there’s still a long way to go in understanding the socialisation of news, we should not see social platforms as only a threat — after all, social media feeds into the news agenda, and vice versa. Instead, we should challenge journalists to focus on stamping out misinformation, and using Google and Facebook as platforms to gain audience eyeballs in different ways.

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